We need a genuine union of European citizens that includes Ukraine

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Interview with Marta Barandiy, founder of civil society network Promote Ukraine and editor-in-chief of Brussels Ukraїna Review, and Maryna Yaroshevych, head of advocacy at Promote Ukraine

The Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFoE) is the opportunity for the EU to become a genuine union of European citizens that should include Ukrainians, according to Marta Barandiy and Maryna Yaroshevych from a Brussels-based civil society network dedicated to supporting Ukraine.

Since at least 2013, Ukrainians have been proving their dedication to European integration. How would you characterise the evolving perception of the EU in Ukraine, especially taking into consideration the changes caused by the previous and the ongoing Russian invasion?

Marta Barandiy: Since the early 2000s, there has been a growing interest in the EU among Ukrainians ranging from political declarations to academic courses dedicated to European integration. Education played an important role in shaping the pro-European mentality of the new generation, which was later reflected in Ukraine’s dedication to the EU. In 2004, we had the Orange Revolution because we wanted justice and transparency, the rule of law, open borders and closer ties with Europe. In 2013, President Viktor Yanukovych refused to sign the EU-Ukraine association agreement under the influence of Vladimir Putin, which triggered Ukraine to stand up for Europe. In 2014, many Ukrainians – probably the only people in the world – died under and for the European flag. Since then, we have been fighting against Russia for our choice and right to be in the EU.

Maryna Yaroshevych: Since at least 2014, Ukrainians have consistently proven that they belong to Europe and share its values. When the full-scale invasion started last month, the support for the EU in Ukraine was at an all-time high. The people who fled the country have received a very warm reception across the Union. The problem is that the Ukrainians who remain in the country don’t feel the same because there is verbal solidarity but it’s not felt in practice when the EU says a humanitarian intervention and military support is too dangerous. This means that Europeans abandon Ukrainians and let them die. When the war ends, I’m not sure if the 37 million Ukrainians who stayed in the country will have the same pro-EU attitude they had before.

The EU strategy for the Eastern Partnership seems to have failed. The territories of Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova are partially occupied by Russia, and your country is being targeted by a full-scale invasion. What do you think the EU should learn from this politically, especially amid the discussions on Europe’s future?

Maryna Yaroshevych: Putin first invaded Georgia in 2008 and seeing no solid and unified European response, he took some time to build up Russia militarily and invade Ukraine in 2014. Even then, Europe didn’t learn the lesson about who Putin was and what he was capable of. Since 2014, the EU has been talking about reducing the energy dependence on Russia or cutting trade links but nothing significant has happened. Because of that, the full-scale invasion started last month – and we are still stuck with a narrative that for the EU member states it is not easy to get rid of dependence on Russia overnight. Of course, we understand it – but we didn’t start raising this issue only now. This subject has been on the agenda at least since 2014! The lesson learnt should be that when precedents happen, you must be serious about the response. Today, the Europeans cannot afford failing to learn the lesson another time.

Marta Barandiy: So many times we have to learn the same lesson, the lesson of Chamberlain and Churchill – if you keep on appeasing a terrorist, you can expect one invasion after another. We feel that in the EU, citizens may understand things better than politicians in this regard. Some of the latter tend to say that if we stand up to Putin now, we will have World War 3 – our response to this is that the Third World War has already started and you are running late with both realisation and response. For now, you still have us Ukrainians on your side, but should we be  gone – you are all alone with Putin.

Currently, the EU is reflecting on the direction of European integration as part of CoFoE. What could be changed in the Union’s institutional and policy framework to make it more capable of maintaining peace and security in Europe and helping Ukraine?

Marta Barandiy: The future of Europe should be defined by its citizens. We can see that Europeans are in favour of the accession of Ukraine to the EU. Beyond the institutional accession process, the Union should rethink how enlargement is done and consider giving Ukrainians European citizenship now, before our government is able to make the necessary adjustments at the institutional level. 

Maryna Yaroshevych: Processes like CoFoE should allow citizens to spearhead new ideas and define the EU agenda, also towards its neighbouring countries. Ukrainians proved in the past and continue proving their commitment to Europe with their lives. It should be possible to grant Ukrainians EU citizenship even before our government fulfils all the accession criteria and joins the Union. We could go beyond the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement and the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Area by adding a civic level to these. The EU should become a genuine union of citizens, including Ukrainians. 

There is a big discussion as part of CoFoE on moving to qualified-majority voting in foreign affairs by the EU, so we can be more active on the international stage, including adopting more effective sanctions swiftly. How do you assess the process of imposing punitive measures on Russia following its invasion of Ukraine?

Marta Barandiy: On one hand, I understand that the Union wants to speak with one voice. On the other hand, if so much is at stake, it should be possible to have a Union of different speeds. Coalitions of willing countries should be able to do more, including banning Russian oil, gas and coal, without being hindered by Russia’s friends in Europe like Orbán’s Hungary.

Maryna Yaroshevych: On sanctions policy we, Ukrainians, often feel that it’s too little, too late because of the cumbersomeness of existing procedures. The necessity to speak with “one voice” might be beneficial in many areas, but not when it comes to security and defence where agreements based on the lowest common denominator can literally result in loss of lives, including civilians, like we see now in Ukraine with the Bucha massacre or Mariupol genocide.

A large part of the CoFoE proposals are dedicated to developing a genuine EU immigration and asylum policy based on the principle of solidarity. What lessons could we draw from the war in Ukraine in this context?

Maryna Yaroshevych: Currently, some 4 million Ukrainians have been forced to flee their country and it’s estimated that this could increase to 8 million. The majority of Ukrainians see this as a temporary measure, hoping to come back to our homeland once the situation allows. Rather than concentrating on integration programmes for refugees, we should focus on what can be done today to stop the war and to facilitate the return of Ukrainians back home as soon as possible. 

Marta Barandiy: It’s also important that national authorities show more flexibility when processing the Ukrainian requests for protection given the exceptional situation we are in. Again, it’s clear that EU citizens want to help Ukrainians, so politicians should follow their expectations.

What kind of Europe and Ukraine do you expect to see in the following years? What are the changes you would like to see following CoFoE?

Maryna Yaroshevych: There is a discussion about the extent of the implementation of citizens’ proposals after the Conference – are the institutions bound to follow up or can they just take note and move on without proper action? The CoFoE proposals must be taken on board. The EU should become more decisive and swift in taking action in response to crises like the one in Ukraine. As for my country – we just have to keep on and persist, and this is what we will do.

Marta Barandiy: The EU should not look at citizens as a burden but as contributors to the shared project. This includes the citizens of Ukraine as well, because they are defending the European values on the frontlines.

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